Rung Running: Getting good at distinguishing "within" from "about" in everyday interaction

In thought and conversation we each take a variety of perspectives, many of which are nested or hierarchical. That is, when you make a statement, it is worth knowing what it represents. A part of you? You overall? Us? Your community? Your country? Everybody?

I’ve written a lot in these pages about how hierarchies of perspective work (search “level” or “meta” here), and I can’t stress enough how effective it is to be able to track levels and level shifts. Rung running, I call it–the ability to move between levels of analysis productively and efficiently, especially in the dance of conversation or negotiation.

Most miscommunication stems from people talking from different levels of analysis. Most doubt is a product of talking about things from two levels. (For example, should I do what’s nice for him or nice for us?)

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Having taught over 150,000 student hours on this stuff in the past five years, I can say that rung running doesn’t come naturally. It takes practice.

One way to distinguish two adjacent levels is by distinguishing thoughts within a level from thoughts about that level, so here are some examples of using that kind of analysis:

Mom: You kids stop fighting. (about the fight)
Billy: But she started it. (within the fight)
Mom: I don’t care-just stop. (about the fight)

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James: Hillary would make a great president. (within the election)
Julie: Forget it, she’s not electable. (about the election)
John: It would better for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq. (within his patriotism)
Tim: Oh, so you don’t care what happens to the U.S.? (about his patriotism)
Sam: I think you need a new job. (about Bill’s job)
Bill: No really, my boss just had a bad day. (within his job)
Sam: No really a new job, because he has a bad day every day. (about Bill’s job again as if to say look at the big picture)
Bill: Hey no it’s alright. You’re too much of a perfectionist. It’s important to be accepting. (leap-frogging Sam’s big picture to a bigger one Bill comments on Sam’s standards)
Kate: I’m not feeling it. (about their band)
Frank: I think I need a better guitar. (within their band)
Kate: I think we need a better guitarist. (about his skills)
Frank: Yeah, we’ll that’s your opinion. (within his standards)
Kate: You can’t even tell how bad it sounds. (about his standards)
Julie: Do you think this dress makes me look fat? (within her looks)
Craig: I think you’re beautiful. (about her looks)
Student: I tried to get my homework in on time but my printer died. (within his effort)
Teacher: Why should I believe you? You show up for class an hour late every day. (about his effort)
Student: Well I don’t think you grade fairly. (about the teacher’s grading)
Teacher: If you got your homework in on time I’d give you a better grade. (within his grading)
Cop: You were speeding. (within the law)
Driver: This road shouldn’t be marked 25 miles an hour. (about the law)
Dan: My stomach is killing me. Got any Tums?1 (within his diet)
Brittany: You have got to stop eating stale Cheetos all day. (about his diet)
Tom: I’m sorry I’m late again, honey. (within the relationship)
Carol: Well, that’s what I want to talk to you about. This relationship isn’t really working. (about the relationship)
Tom: What do you mean? We’re doing fine. (disagreement about the relationship)
Carol: You’re late every day. (getting nowhere about the relationship, she returns to trouble within the relationship)
Tom: Not every day. (within the relationship)
Carol: This is futile. (about the disagreements both within and about the relationship)
Tom: I’m not late every day (persisting from within the relationship)
Carol: Talking with you gets nowhere. (from within her attitude about his attitude)
Tom: Why do you keep stirring up trouble between us? (from within his attitude about her attitude)


1. This example was sponsored by Tums, the handy stomach remedy, and Cheetos, the ever-tasty snack.2
2. Dan’s footnoted comment was within the dialog. Footnote 1 was about the dialogue.3
3. Footnote 2 was about footnote 1.

For complete illumination regarding within and about listen to this classic Monty Python skit.

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